The role of the Chief of Staff is currently one of the most in-demand and the least understood in the C-Suite. I was the very first Chief of Staff at Google, so I have spent a lot of time crafting, embodying, and now empowering the role. Now all of my CEO clients want a Chief of Staff of their own but have found it much more challenging than expected. Since this role has the potential to have an immediate, exponential impact, it is essential to design, hire and align the job correctly for your organization. I have seen this go very well and exceptionally bad.
Here is my starter guide for how to add this role to your c-suite and potentially 10X the output of your entire leadership team in the process.
What is a Chief of Staff?
The core function of a Chief of Staff is to optimize and sustain the CEO and c-suite executives. Their focus is to create and own processes for productivity, progress tracking, and efficiency across the entire organization. They actualize and activate the CEO’s vision. This allows the CEO to focus on the long-term goals while the executive team focuses on implementation. The Chief of Staff works between the verticals for a seamless, iterative process.
The Chief of Staff can be compared to a skillful conductor of an orchestra. They did not compose the music (the CEO did); they are not first chair violin (the co-founder or president or Chairman is); nor play any instrument (the senior execs do). However, they manage the rhythm (the growth pace), crescendos (your sprint cycles), diminuendos (your culture and milestone celebrations), and general arch of collaborative effort, which makes everyone perform in sync and individually shine at the right moments (via dashboards, agendas, and strategic analysis). This role owns nothing and everything. That is the art of it.
When do you need a Chief of Staff?
The following 5 questions will help you identify if you could benefit from hiring a Chief of Staff. In my experience, most executives wait too long rather than hiring one too early.
1- You are no longer able to be in all the rooms where critical decisions are being made. You would immediately benefit by having someone be your eyes and ears as well as a delegate in those rooms.
2- You cannot singularly track the dashboards and critical metrics which will inform your growth strategies and big bets. You live in fear of a critical failure not getting resolved simply because it wasn’t brought to your attention soon enough.
3- Your company culture is suffering from a steep growth curve and needs active tracking and preservation. You need someone to ensure your strategies, targets, and goals are permeating through all levels of your organization beyond your senior management team.
4- You don’t have protected time for deep thought work and vision because you are in back-to-back meetings and stuck managing operations and action items.
5- The race feels like yours to lose. You have the funding, the post-product market fit, and/or the right expertise in the room but still cannot keep up because everyone is running on fumes. You need to make the sum greater than the individual parts.
How to craft your perfect Chief of Staff role
Every Chief of Staff role is slightly different because, in order to be successful, they need to be tailored to the needs of the specific CEO, leadership team, and organization. With that said, there are critical, universal ways to set this role up for success.
The most common mistake I see is CEOs not putting in the time to provide full clarity in the job description and not having buy-in from their senior leaders in advance. Starting with complete clarity of what success in this role means to the CEO and C-Suite and how it will be measured, incentivized, and rewarded will save you from countless frustrations and false starts.
In order to set clear expectations for the role, I suggest exploring the following categories as a way to get started:
- Project management: Which projects will they own, which will they manage, which will they delegate?
- Authority level: What will they decide on behalf of the CEO? What will they research and propose to the CEO? In what tasks will they partner with senior leadership team members? What will they track and measure but not own?
- Process shifts: What information, projects, and processes will be delegated to this role that have been previously managed by the CEO or other senior leadership members?
- Core characteristics and competencies: What personality, skillsets, and seniority would most compliment the entire team best?
- Growth path of the role: Is this role designed as a boot camp training ground for going on to take on a senior leadership role in a fast-growing part of the company? Or is this a long-term partnership of a moonshot thinker (the CEO) and facilitator/implementor (the CoS) both fully maximizing their potential together for the long haul?
How do you identify a high-quality Chief of Staff candidate?
Once you are clear on what this role will do, own and manage, you need to know how to identify the right candidate for you. There are a few core attributes that are universally found in highly effective Chiefs of Staff.
- Curiosity – This role requires a strong understanding of deeply complex tasks, expertise, and personalities. The right person is energized by that rather than drained by it.
- Resilience – This role will require learning at a breakneck pace in high-stake environments with inevitable failures along the path. They need to be humble, authentic, unflappable, collaborative, and with a deep-seated personal compass.
- Communication – this role is the bond between all the big bets of the company. This requires concise, clear, actionable communication that steers the right power players into the right place at the right moment.
- Adaptability – They must be comfortable communicating, managing, and building systems across widely different personalities, styles, and paces.
- Passion – They need to have a deep seeded desire for the organization’s success at a personal level. It needs to be fun to collaborate with them – especially during times of stress, exhaustion, and frustration.
The Chief of Staff’s core skills should include:
- A strategic mind. They must quickly develop a deep knowledge of the company’s goals, bets, and risks. They must understand the why behind the projects and not just the what.
- A collaborative project management playbook. They must have deep connections across every organization in the company and can manage effectively between the verticals.
- Strong judgment and decision-making. They must be able to prioritize and pivot multiple times a day without throwing off progress nor confusing their priorities or people.
- Constant and clear communication. Things move fast, so the Chief of Staff needs to be the single source of truth at every step – raising the right issues, offering solutions, and anticipating needs.
- Ability to process massive amounts of information. A core function of this role will be organizing, prioritizing, communicating, and summarizing data from across the entire organization to allow the right decisions to be made at the right time.
Managing the expectation and power dynamics in the executive team
Once you’ve identified and hired your ideal Chief of Staff, it’s essential to get everyone on board. I’ve seen very talented Chiefs of Staff remain ineffective because there wasn’t a common understanding across the executive team about what the role means (and doesn’t mean) or how to utilize them for individual and collective success.
Take the time to make sure everyone understands how this role will be used most effectively. What processes will now change? What projects, data, and issues should now be first brought to the Chief of Staff that used to be taken directly with the CEO?
Most importantly, clearly define what problems and processes you are solving by hiring a Chief of Staff. Be sure the way to measure their efficacy and success is clearly defined and shared by everyone.
How to partner with your Chief of Staff as the CEO
Your relationship with your Chief of Staff is the most important one in the company and the most personal. As with most partnerships, you will get out of it what you put into it. They are not a magic wand or mind reader (although a good one will make it feel that way in time.)
There are several key things you need to consistently do to set you both up for success.
- Set clear priorities. Your needs, goals, and strategy will evolve over time as your company grows, but it should always be absolutely clear what they are on each given day. Their to-do list will be bottomless, but the top three ways we win today should be clearly understood by both of you.
- Communicate and invest time. Creating your own brain-double and right-hand partner requires an investment on your part. Give them full access and never cancel your one-on-ones – even if they are only 5 minutes long. This should be the most effective conversation of your day, every day.
- Create space for relationship building and continued learning. Many Chiefs of Staff dive too deep too fast in a good-faith effort to make a difference on day one and end up stepping on executive toes rather than building relationships of trust. An effective Chief of Staff is seen as the #1 way for executives to be efficient and effective in their organization. Never as a roadblock. This requires time to develop, so encourage this as a consistent priority.
Want even more guidance?
I consult with executive teams on c-suite optimization. I have been a catalyst, activator, and actualizer for some of the world’s most impactful, change-making CEOs for the last two decades. This guide is just the tip of the iceberg on how to create a partnership like this of your own.
Contact me for more information on 1:1 consulting, Mastermind sessions and my annual Chief of Staff training retreat in Spain. I’d love to work with you!